The House of Bernarda Alba **1/2

Now here’s a production that is suffering from a major identity crisis.  It says that it is a ‘modern adaptation’ of a much lauded and respected play, but those who know the original will be hard-pressed to see it as such.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s original Bernarda Alba is harrowing drama.  Filled with symbolism, biting social commentary and rich characters, Alba can make for brilliant theatre.  Indeed, as it is one of the few classic scripts with a large female cast, it is a play that is constantly revived, many times in, shall we say ‘unfortunate’, school productions (which may be why many are a bit wary of it).

Here, Rona Munro (herself a highly respected writer) has decided to not only create a translation but to also reconfigure the whole play.  Gone is the Spanish country setting steeped in centuries of tradition and stigma and in its place is the East of Glasgow and a crime-fuelled lifestyle.  The actual house is overly posh, a place where money has trumped taste and is filled with a bunch of bickering women who are mostly walking punch lines to the current Ned/Yob culture.

What is most frustrating is that there are two plays screaming to be found here: Lorca’s passionate original and a clever new play.  That Munro has decided to shackle herself with Lorca’s original without treating it with much reverence while pushing her new concept about as far as possible means that neither play fully sees light.

While watching the production, I kept asking myself ‘Why?’  Why change the language so much?  Why focus on choices of style and not give much substance?  Why make such radical changes and yet try to keep close to the original’s structure?  And the biggest question of all: Why should I care?

Munro would have been far better served had she decided to write her own play and used Lorca’s as mere inspiration, because the truth is that the main points of the play, that of the five daughters remaining cooped up home and the youngest’s earnest attempts at freedom, just don’t bode well in a modern context.  Had Munro been braver and written a brand new story, her ‘new’ concept would have worked far more.

This is all a shame because the production itself is actually quite good.  John Tiffany has many clever staging ideas that are inventive and playful, and he has a solid cast that are game.  If some come across weaker than others, it is for lack of character depth rather than shallowness of performance.  And there are some rather good performances, namely from Myra McCusker in the rather thankless and exposition-heavy character of Penny and Siobhan Redmond as matriarch Bernie.  The two-hour running time does pass quickly and there are some electric moments that make for great drama.

But I have to go back to the script.  Yes, there are many good zingers along the way and there is a potentially great play filled with insight on modern British capitalism and celebrity culture, but this isn’t it.  It is an unfortunate misfire that let’s down a very talented ensemble who are rescued from a self-assured director who treats the material with far greater respect than Munro has shown Lorca.

Tour finishes at the Edinburgh Kings on November 7.


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